Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Peoples Republic of China threatened the survival of millennia of human progress. They had to be fought to the death. Otherwise darkness would spread over the Earth. It would be easy to characterize this as the Children of Darkness versus the Children of Light. Life isn’t like that. Instead, squalid moral compromises imposed themselves in this titanic struggle. So, from 1939 to 1989, we embraced the lesser tyrannies in order to defeat the greater tyrannies. The United States allied itself with the British Empire and Stalinist Russia to defeat Hitler’s Germany. Then the United States allied itself with Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Saudi Arabia, post-Nasserite Egypt, Asian dictatorships (Taiwan, South Korea, South Vietnam), Shavian Iran, then Saddam Hussein against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a great many African dictatorships.
We got our hands dirty in the process. Very dirty. We tolerated the atrocities of inhumane regimes allied to our cause. We ourselves–and not just the soldiers we sent to do our bidding–committed atrocities. We advanced the interests of the private corporations that we used as instruments and proxies. We slighted the humanitarian organizations that expressed an important strand of American idealism.
And we won. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union as created by Joseph Stalin, and Communist China as created by Mao Zedong have all been laid in the dust. We won, but not we alone. We had allies, notably Britain and its Commonwealth of Nations, and the Western European countries that created the European Union, and Japan.
Squalid moral compromises didn’t always have squalid outcomes. One great story of the second half of the Twentieth Century has been the expansion of democracy. Places where democracy failed in the Thirties and Forties (Italy, Austria, Germany, France) have become solidly democratic political systems. One-time dictatorships (Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Baltic states, Japan) have become democratic societies. Formal colonial empires have been dismantled, allowing many societies to make a mess of things on the own and for the advantage of their own elites, rather than by and for Western elites. The idea of Democracy has expanded. Women have the vote and a greater chance at participation in most Western societies. “Democracy” has come to mean government action to promote material welfare and opportunity in many countries.
Still, the “Fifty Years’ War” had its costs. Not all of them were numbered in economic terms or human lives. The war cost us in social and psychological terms. Chief among them seems to be the entrenching of a war mind-set. This appears in the overblown hostility to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the fear of radical Islam. Loathsome as these are, neither poses an existential threat.
What have we done, what will we do with our victory? That is, “What do we offer?” NOT the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” declared by Winston Churchill. Rather we want to offer honest work at decent pay; family homes; the right to your opinion, even if it is nutty or you don’t care to say; equal treatment under the law; and a tolerance for diversity.
What we aspire to offer everyone isn’t what we do offer to everyone yet. Still, it’s better than wearing a suicide vest into a steamy rural market or writing malware in a freezing tenement.